Why Getty Going Free Is Such a Big Deal, Explained in Getty Images

The company just made tens of millions of its photos free for noncommercial use.
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A Getty photo, from Getty Images® (Getty)

Heres's one of the quirks of the Internet: It can make illegal activity so simple to engage in that you can forget it's against the law. 

Take image-sharing. If you find a photo, via Google Image Search or some such, that you want to publish on your blog (or tweet out to your followers, or use as your Instagram profile pic, or what have you), there is an extremely simple way to accomplish this: Download or screencap the image. Upload it. Boom. The Internet has shared its riches with you once again. 

If you have engaged in this process with an image that happens to be from Getty, the massive digital photo agency, however ... then you are, I am sorry to tell you, a thief. You have violated Getty's terms of service; you have stolen its stuff; you have (screen)grabbed something that was not yours to grab in the first place.

If you are one of these digital outlaws, though, your thieving days may soon be behind you. Late yesterday, Getty announced a new system for photo-sharing on its platform: embeddability. Some 35 million(!) of the agency's photos are now free for pretty much anyone to share—for, at least, noncommercial purposes. Which is big news, not only for the web publishers whose ranks are growing daily, but also for what the move says—and concedes—about the digital economy as it exists in early 2014. 

Below, seven reasons why Getty's embed capability is a big deal—explained through seven Getty embeds. 

***

1. It's finding a way to capture value from thieves.

It's important to note that, while many millions of Getty images are now available for embed, not all Getty images are. And there seems to be a fairly significant split, from what I can tell, between stock images and photojournalism images when it comes to embeddability. So do a search for "Ukraine," and you''ll get lots of photos ... but that one of John Kerry shaking hands with Sergei Lavrov in Rome yesterday? Nope, not embeddable.

So, basically, if you're in need of a generally illustrative photo to decorate a story about craft beer or an unending winter or Getty's move to embeddable photos, you should have lots of (now-free!) options. If you're looking for photojournalism that will complement your story on Ukraine, however, you might be out of luck.

That distinction is important; it emphasizes, among other things, the bet that Getty is making by opening this new revenue stream. News outlets, after all, will always need news photos. Keeping the newsy stuff out of the "free photo" pool allows Getty to preserve its value for its already-paying digital subscribers, while the embed system could be a way to capture some value from The Rogues. This is Getty attempting to have its cake, and eat it, too.

And while the embeds are not, at this point, entirely user-friendly—they don't have auto-resizing, for example (the ones below, which originally came in several different widths, I had to resize manually)—they are at least a legal and straightforward way to share images. They're the iTunes of stock photography, basically. 

2. It's taking a big stand on the definition of "noncommercial." 

Here's another of the weird features of the Internet of 2014: Despite the frequency of the term "noncommercial" in terms of service agreements, we haven't settled on a common legal definition of it. Even Creative Commons, the Nieman Journalism Lab's Josh Benton points out, hasn't been willing to take a clear stand on the issue.

In 2011, Benton notes, Wired released a set of its photos under a Creative Commons license. When it did so, it allowed for the photos' "editorial use by bloggers or any other publisher," including those that had ads on them.

Getty, in its new terms of service, is taking a similar stand: 

You may only use embedded Getty Images Content for editorial purposes (meaning relating to events that are newsworthy or of public interest). Embedded Getty Images Content may not be used: (a) for any commercial purpose (for example, in advertising, promotions or merchandising) or to suggest endorsement or sponsorship; (b) in violation of any stated restriction; (c) in a defamatory, pornographic or otherwise unlawful manner; or (d) outside of the context of the Embedded Viewer.

But there's still murkiness, even in this. "Editorial purposes," as anyone who has wrestled with the whole "Wait? What's Fair Use here?" questions will tell you, is a notoriously vague standard; "commercial purpose" (given that many web publications with an "editorial" focus serve ads on their sites) is, too. 

Getty explained a little bit more about its thinking on this to the British Journal of Photography

Blogs that draw revenues from Google Ads will still be able to use the Getty Images embed player at no cost. “We would not consider this commercial use,” says Peters. “The fact today that a website is generating revenue would not limit the use of the embed. What would limit that use is if they used our imagery to promote a service, a product or their business. They would need to get a license.” A spokeswoman for Getty Images confirms to BJP that editorial websites, from The New York Times to Buzzfeed, will also be able to use the embed feature as long as images are used in an editorial context.

Again: The fact today that a website is generating revenue would not limit the use of the embed. It's notable that Peters emphasizes "today" here; these definitions could change. For now, though, Getty is taking a broad definition of "non-commercial." Whether it's a productive one remains to be seen. 

3. It's giving one company—Getty—a lot of control over the aesthetics of the web. 

The Getty embed, like pretty much other major embed infrastructure, is fairly utilitarian. It's got share buttons and credits and—lest we forget—the "getty images®" logo in relatively enormous font. Which is the rough digital equivalent of purchasing a gorgeous Ansel Adams print ... and then displaying the thing in a neon-green, plastic frame.

Which isn't, on its own, a big deal; the web is already studded with that kind of visual chrome by way of YouTube embeds, Instagram embeds, embedded tweets, and the like. We're getting used to ugly frames—and not everything, of course, can be Snow Fall

What it means, though, is that images are hosted by Getty, rather than by web publishers themselves. And while "embeds from Twitter and YouTube are already a crucial part of the modern web," The Verge points out in its write-up of the Getty news, they have also "enabled a more advanced kind of link rot, as deleted tweets and videos leave holes in old blog posts." And what if Getty, you know, changes its mind about the free-image strategy? What if it deletes some images from the embeddable set? Publishers wouldn't have much recourse. Assuming people actually use the embeds, Getty will have an even bigger say than it already does in what the Internet, as a collective, looks like. 

4. It's (re-)emphasizing the economic value of data. 

If the embeds take off, as well, the brand benefits for Getty—pardon me, for getty images®—are obvious. It's notable, too, that if you click in the sharing buttons included in the photo embeds, the link takes you back to Getty. Which is a nice little branding two-fer. 

But the other thing Getty gets in the deal may prove more directly valuable to the company. Here, take a look at Getty's new terms of service: 

Getty Images (or third parties acting on its behalf) may collect data related to use of the Embedded Viewer and embedded Getty Images Content, and reserves the right to place advertisements in the Embedded Viewer or otherwise monetize its use without any compensation to you.

Data! DATA. And without any compensation to you, dear user. 

This is Facebook's play—and Tumblr's play, and Twitter's play, and Google's play, and pretty much any random web startup's play—applied to the world of web imagery. (It's also not the first time Getty has experimented in this way: Last fall the company announced a partnership with Pinterest: It gets payments from the image-focused social network in exchange for images' metadata.) 

User information is valuable, almost implicitly. And Getty isn't alone in attempting to capture it, of course, even when it comes to photos. When, a couple years ago, I talked with the folks at Shutterstock, another massive stock-photo agency, they emphasized the extent to which their photographers use search data to create their images. Essentially, the reason you get photos like, say, this one ...

Shutterstock/Kruglov_Orda

… is that someone (or someones—though it doesn't have to be many) has searched the Shutterstock site for "fat cat" or "cat with money" or "rich cat" or whatever. And then an enterprising photographer has created a photo to fit that search.

It's a feedback loop, a search-mediated conversation between images' producers and their consumers. With its move toward embeddability—and all the delicious, gooey data that comes with it—Getty is trying to get in on the action. 

5. It's opening up a whole new space for Internet ads.

You know how, in Independence Day, the alien mothership sent smaller ships to stud the Earth as part of its overall plan of attack? You can think of the Getty move a little bit like that. The embeds—again, assuming they take off—would establish a Getty-controlled infrastructure all across the web. That infrastructure, in turn, could be used for ... ads. Banner ads. Preroll ads. Ads of many, many varieties. 

6. It has a pretty significant (potential) loophole. 

Josh Benton, experimenting with the embeds, points out a potential problem for Getty: "The way the embeds are set up, it’s trivial to resize the iframe to eliminate the Getty Images credit and sharing tools at the bottom." So you can basically use the embed infrastructure—and have all the right code at the backend—and yet display images without all the visual features that Getty wants you to display at the same time.

Would that violate Getty's terms of service? Unclear. 

7. It's adapting to users, rather than trying to fight them. 

This may be the biggest innovation that is embedded, as it were, in the Getty move: The company is being realistic about the way its content is being used online. It's trying to find ways to work with users, rather than against them, to build its own brand and find new revenue streams. According to Bloomberg Law, Getty has filed only seven copyright infringement lawsuits in the past five years; it seems resigned to the fact that porous walls, rather than solid ones, might make the most sense given the affordances of the Internet. 

As Craig Peters, a business development exec at Getty Images, told The Verge: "Look, if you want to get a Getty image today, you can find it without a watermark very simply. The way you do that is you go to one of our customer sites and you right-click. Or you go to Google Image search or Bing Image Search and you get it there. And that's what's happening… Our content was everywhere already."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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